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over amatory poetry ; Polyhymnia over eloquence and imitation; Calliope over heroic or epic poetry; Clio over history; Euterpe over music; Terpsichore over dancing ; and Urania over the study of astronomy.
There was a class of demi-gods, who filled imaginary places in every corner both of earth and sea. The shady groves and flowery vales were peopled by Dryads or wood-nymphs, and Satyrs, a species of rural deities, who, like Pan, had the horns, legs, and feet of goats. Mountains and streams possessed their guardian gods and goddesses, and every fountain had its Naiad or water-nymph. The lively imagination of the Greeks made them consider the thunder as the voice of Jupiter; the soft breezes of summer were to them the movement of the wing of Æolus; the echo of the forest was the voice of a goddess; and the gentle murmur of the streamlet sounded as the tones of its presiding deity. In short, whatever sound or sight in nature charmed their fancy, the Greeks ascribed the pleasure to the agency of unseen, but beautiful and immortal, beings.
Physical beauty was, nevertheless, much more prominent than moral, in the divinities shaped out by the imagination of the Greeks. Their gods were represented as mingling in the affairs of mortals, and frequently lending their superior power and intelligence to the promotion of schemes of vice and villany. They were animated by envy, malice, and all the evil passions to which men are subject, and they did not hesitate to adopt any measures, however base, to gratify their nefarious purposes. Even Jupiter, the
king of heaven, is described as acting a very profligate part on earth.
Yet, strange as it may seem, most of the Greeks appear to have been impressed with sincere religious feelings. The stories of the gods had come down to them with the authority of antiquity, and habit made them bow to beings of whose characters their reason could not approve. It seems, impossible, however, that the sages, philosophers, and other persons of cultivated intellect, who flourished in Greece, could have reposed faith in the tissue of gross and extravagant fables of which this mythology was composed; and, in fact, it is known that Socrates, and others of the wisest men of antiquity, rejected the popular belief, and, observing
unity of design which is apparent in all the works of nature, rightly conjectured that the whole universe must have been created by one omnipotent and omniscient God, the sovereign and ruler of all.
The Greeks believed in a future state of rewards and punishments. They imagined, that, after death, the souls of men descended to the shores of a dismal and pestilential stream, called the Styx, where Charon, a grim-looking personage, acted as ferryman, and rowed the spirits of the dead across the melancholy river, the boundary of the dominions of Pluto. To obtain a passage in Charon's boat, it was necessary that the deceased should have been buried. Those who were drowned at sea, or who were in any
other manner deprived of the customary rites of sepulture, were compelled to wander about on the banks of the Styx for a hundred years, before being permitted to cross it.
After quitting the vessel of Charon, the trembling shades advanced to the palace of Pluto, the gate of which was guarded by a monstrous dog, named Cerberus, which had three heads, and a body covered with snakes instead of hair. They then appeared before Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Æacus, the three judges of the infernal regions, by whom the wicked were condemned to torments, and the good rewarded with heavenly pleasures.
Tartarus, the place of punishment, was the abode of darkness and horror. There Tantalus, for a vile crime done in life, remained perpetually surrounded with water, which fled from his lips whenever he attempted to quench his burning thirst, while over his head hung branches laden with delicious fruits, which shrunk from his grasp as often as he stretched out his hand to pluck them.
There, also, was Ixion, bound with serpents to the rim of a wheel, which, constantly revolving, allowed no cessation of his agonies. Another variety of punishment was allotted to Sisyphus, who was condemned to the endless task of rolling a huge stone up the side of a steep mountain, which he had no sooner accomplished than it rolled down again to its former place. On one side criminals were writhing under the merciless lash of the avenging Furies, and on another were to be seen wretches surrounded with unquenchable flames.
Elysium, the abode of the blessed, was a region of surpassing loveliness and pleasure. Groves of the richest verdure, and streams of silvery clearness, were to be met with on every side. The air was pure, serene, and temperate; the birds continually warbled in the woods; and a brighter light than that of the sun was diffused throughout that happy land. No cares nor sorrow could disturb its inhabitants, who spent their time in the enjoyment of those pleasures they had loved on earth, or in admiring the wisdom and power of the gods.
Though we are accustomed to speak of Greece as one country, we have already seen that it consisted of several distinct nations. In the earlier periods of their history, these were hostile to each other, and it was long before they united in one great confederation. The almost incessant wars that took place kept the people from free communication with each other, and thus hindered their advance in civilization. But, fortunately, a king of Elis, named Iphitus, at length devised an institution, by which the people of all the Grecian states were enabled, notwithstanding their quarrels and wars with one another, to meet periodically on friendly terms, and communicate to each other such information as might be useful for the improvement and welfare of the whole.
This institution was an Olympic festival. From a very remote period, the Greeks had been accustomed to engage in contests of strength and agility during their times of festivity, and also at the funerals of distinguished personages. Iphitus conceived the idea of establishing a periodical festival in his own dominions, for the celebration of these ancient games, and of religious rites in honor of Jupiter and Hercules; and, having obtained the authority of the Delphian oracle for carrying his design into execution, he instituted the festival, and appointed that it should be repeated every fourth year, at Olympia, a town of Elis.
To this festival he invited all the people of Greece; and, that none might be prevented from attending it by the wars in which any of the states might be engaged, the Delphic oracle commanded that a general armistice should take place for some time before and after each celebration. The date of the establishment of the Olympic games, 884, B. C., was afterwards assumed by the Greeks as the epoch from which they reckoned the progress of time; the four years intervening between each occurrence of the festival being styled an Olympiad.